With over 6000 peer review articles, and a long history of Ayurvedic use can this natural herb trump traditional approaches to inflammation?
Turmeric is the major ingredient used in Indian curries, responsible for their unique taste and colour. But what has fascinated practitioners for centuries is its active ingredient called curcumin, which has also been used for centuries for its healing properties.
According to the scientific journals, turmeric may be one of the most powerful herbs on the planet, and it’s potential has attracted over 6000 peer review articles making it one of the most researched herbs in the scientific literature.
The list of potential benefits is extensive, including anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, anti-viral, antioxidant, anti-depressant, pain reducing, anti-coagulating and insulin sensitivity boosting properties which could in theory support a wide range of conditions including: depression, inflammation, Alzheimer’s disease, arthritis, cholesterol, diabetes, gastrointestinal problems and even possibly cancer.
Can curcumin really help all these conditions? Today we will look at some of these claims to see how the research stacks up. We will also look at the recommended dosages based on the studies, and how you can ensure maximum bio-availability when taking curcumin.
What is turmeric and its active ingredient curcumin?
Turmeric is a plant native to South Asia which belongs to the ginger family.
Beyond being a staple of Indian cooking, turmeric has a long history of use within Chinese and Ayurvedic medicines, and modern science is now catching up to the surprising benefits of this ancient spice.
What makes turmeric special is its bioactive ingredient called curcumin, a unique curcuminoid which appears to have a wide range of potential therapeutic properties.
Now let’s look at some of the benefits associated with turmeric, and see how the science stacks up:
Curcumin as an anti-inflammatory (Read this if you suffer from Arthritis!)
Inflammation is a natural part of our immune system triggered by bacteria, trauma, toxins or heat in order to isolate and contain the problem. We call this “positive inflammation” acute inflammation and it generally starts quickly and generally disappears within a few days.
But there is also a not so good type of inflammation called chronic inflammation, which can last for months of years.
Arthritis, allergies, heart disease, chronic pain, obesity, migraines, dental issues, cancer, thyroid issues, ADD/ ADHD, diabetes, stroke, Alzheimer’s and gastrointestinal conditions to name a few are all triggered by excess inflammation.
The problem is that common practice currently involves treating the symptoms rather than the cause of inflammation, which results in an overuse of prescription medications.
Alongside dietary and lifestyle interventions, a growing body of evidence suggests that turmeric and curcumin could have potent anti-inflammatory properties, which has lead to research for its use in a variety of inflammatory conditions.
In one study of post surgery patients, a 400mg dose of curcumin was found to be superior than phenylbutazone (a prescription nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID)) at reducing inflammation measured as spermatic cord edema, spermatic cord tenderness, operative site pain, and operative site tenderness.
In another study this time with Rheumatoid arthritis patients, a 500mg dose of curcumin showed better improvements in tenderness and swelling of joint scores than diclofenac sodium (a prescription nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID)).
Aspirin and Ibuprofen are some of the most popular over the counter pain killers and anti-inflammatory remedies. But a recent study looking at specific inflammation markers found curcumin ranked higher than aspirin and ibuprofen.
Is it time to stock your pharmacy cabinet with some standardised curcumin extract?
Curcumin and gastrointestinal conditions
Inflammation plays an important part in gastrointestinal conditions with patients getting prescribed anti-inflammatory drugs such as corticosteroids and aminosalicylates as a first step towards treatment. This helps reduce pain symptoms but come at the price of damage to the intestinal lining over time, which can make the condition worse.
Researchers have therefore looked at Curcumin with great interest to see if it could provide relief without the typical side effects.
One phase 2 clinical trial involving patients with gastric ulcer found that 600mg of curcumin five times daily helped clear ulcers in 76% of patients within 12 weeks of treatment. And within 2 weeks the abdominal pain was significantly decreased.
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a painful condition which affects over 20% of the UK population. In a pilot study featuring 500 volunteers screened for IBS they found that 144mg of standardised turmeric extract was associated with a 60% decrease in IBS prevalence, and discomfort scores were reduced by 25%.
Next up are Crohn’s disease (CD) and ulcerative colitis which are inflammatory bowel diseases affecting more than 300,000 people in the UK.
In a small pilot study with patients who had previously received standard therapy for either Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis were split into two groups:
5 patients with ulcerative colitis received 550mg of curcumin twice daily for a month, and this was increased to three times daily the next month. At the end of the study all these participants saw marked improvements. Two reduced their medications, two were able to eliminate their pre-study medications and all now demonstrated normal ESR, CRP and serologic indices of inflammation after two months.
The 5 patients in the Crohn’s disease group received 360mg curcumin three times daily, and four times daily the next month. At the end of the study Crohn’s Disease Activity Index (CDAI) decreased by an average of 55 points and four out of five patients decreased their CRP and ESR inflammation indicators.
Whilst it is still early days, the initial results are impressive and definitely worth a trying curcumin supplementation if you suffer from gastrointestinal conditions. As always consult your doctor before taking any supplements.
Curcumin and your immune system
Whilst we saw earlier that curcumin seems to have strong anti-inflammatory effects, studies have also found it may also help modulate the activation of T cells, B cells, macrophages, neutrophils, natural killer cells, dendritic cells and at low dosages may also enhance antibody responses which are essential to our innate immune response.
Curcumin’s Achilles heel: Availability and absorption
You may have noticed that a many of the studies used quite large dosages of turmeric and curcumin, the reason for this is availability and absorption.
Regular Turmeric powder only contains around 3% curcumin, so you need a lot of turmeric powder to get its active ingredient, plus purity can vary from one producer to another.
The second problem concerns curcumin’s relatively low bio-availability, which means only a limited amount of Curcumin actually gets absorbed in the body.
The good news is researchers have found two ways to counter these problems: First, we now have access to much higher strength standardised turmeric powder featuring 95% curcumin. Second curcumin can be combined with piperine which has been found to increase Curcumin bioavailability by up to 2,000%.
This is the particular combination we used in our own Curcumin complex supplement, which combines piperine with a high strength standardised turmeric powder featuring (95% curcumin).
The result is a practical easy to swallow capsule and significantly lower dosage requirements.
And if you ever tried cleaning up after making a turmeric-based drink a lot less mess!
Satoskar RR, Shah SJ, Shenoy SG.
 Chandran, B. and Goel, A. (2012), A Randomized, Pilot Study to Assess the Efficacy and Safety of Curcumin in Patients with Active Rheumatoid Arthritis. Phytother. Res., 26: 1719–1725. doi:10.1002/ptr.4639
 Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory agents differ in their ability to suppress NF-kappaB activation, inhibition of expression of cyclooxygenase-2 and cyclin D1, and abrogation of tumor cellproliferation.
 Phase II clinical trial on effect of the long turmeric (Curcuma longa Linn) on healing of peptic ulcer.
 Turmeric extract may improve irritable bowel syndrome symptomology in otherwise healthy adults: a pilot study.
Spicing up” of the immune system by curcumin.
Recent Developments in Delivery, Bioavailability, Absorption and Metabolism of Curcumin: the Golden Pigment from Golden Spice